UNMC study shows importance of diet for lung health

Mariah Jackson, PhD, and Corri Hanson, PhD

UNMC College of Allied Health Professions faculty have contributed to a groundbreaking new study showing that diet may be an important factor for long-term lung health and disease prevention.

Mariah Jackson, PhD, assistant professor of medical nutrition, is first author, and Corri Hanson, PhD, director of the medical nutrition program, is co-investigator of a recent publication in the Journal of the COPD Foundation that shows a plant-centered diet, a diet that has a lot of healthy fruits and vegetables in it, is inversely associated with radiographic emphysema.

The research uses data from the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) Lung Prospective Cohort Study. This study tracked participants who were 18-30 years old at enrollment and followed them for 30 years.

The CARDIA study checked for emphysema in year 25 of the project via computed tomography. The quintile of participants with highest A Priori Diet Quality Scores – in lay terms, those who ate a nutritionally rich diet centered on healthy plant-based foods – developed emphysema at a prevalence of 4.5%. Those from the quintile with the lowest APDQS scores, or the least nutritional diets, developed emphysema at a prevalence of 25.4%. The publication concluded that “greater adherence to a plant-centered diet was inversely associated with emphysema,” even among those who identified as heavy smokers.

While “diet doesn’t go directly into your lungs,” Dr. Jackson said, these conclusions add weight to the idea of looking at diet as a complementary intervention in lung health. “It’s exciting to see another avenue of potential interventions we can offer our patients for their preventative health, in addition to smoking cessation,” she said.

“Everyone eats, so diet choices are something anybody can, without a prescription, work on to make small, sustainable changes toward a nutrient-rich plant-based diet,” she said.

The study also showed that people can have unhealthy determinants, such as smoking, while also possessing healthy habits, like diet. This still can have a preventative effect, as smokers who followed a nutritionally rich, plant-based diet had a 56% lower risk of developing emphysema, compared to those with the lowest adherence to the diet.

This study was a continuation of Dr. Jackson’s long-term research focus of looking into how nutrition and diet play into chronic diseases.

The people studied did not use diet as an intervention. Rather, the research looked at what they did normally over the course of the 30-year research period.

Dr. Jackson acknowledged that making a change in diet, even knowing it’s good for you, isn’t necessarily easy.

“With any lifestyle intervention, it’s important to have support to guide you through healthy behavior changes,” she said.

“Sustainable behavior changes start with small goals and build upon success. Make those SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound) goals.”

She suggested using small “simple swaps,” such as whole grain bread instead of white bread or think about what you can “add-in versus take away” from your diet, such as adding black or pinto beans into your taco meat. Even frozen and canned vegetables are beneficial in moving toward a plant-based diet.

Collaborators on the study included the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, Brigham and Women’s Medical Center, South Shore Hospital and Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.


  1. Tanya Custer says:

    Congratulations Dr. Jackson & Dr. Hanson!

  2. Anne Lawlor says:

    Congratulations, Mariah and Corri, on your publication, and thank you for your important research!

  3. Sara Bills says:

    Congratulations, Dr. Jackson and Dr. Hanson! I echo Anne’s sentiments about your important research!

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